UK HiFi Choice: Questyle CMA400i DAC with Headphone AMP

Media: HiFi Choice

Award: Recommended

Reviewer: Neville Roberts
Abstract: The CMA400i delivers superb sound and competes with headphone amps well above its price point. The lack of analogue input is a let down, but it’s ability to operate as a standalone DAC/preamp is a real plus.

Turning on the style.
This versatile preamp with DAC and headphone amplifier offers the best of all worlds, as Neville Roberts discovers.

Combing the functions of a headphone amplifier with those of a DAC and a preamplifier in one neat package, the CMA400i is made from high-quality aluminium and manufactured for Questyle by Foxconn—the name behind other notable products that include BlackBerry, iPad, iPhone, iPod, Kindle, Nintendo and Xbox. Each panel has been CNC MACHINE TO A TOLERANCE OF UNDER ±0.02mm, which brings a lovely feel of quality to the unit. The CMA400i can either be used in a conventional horizontal position or, if you are short of space, vertically using an optional rubber base.

It supports a wide range of digital inputs via optical Toslink, USB Type B and two S/PDIF coaxial sockets. Surprisingly, though, there are no analogue inputs, which is a bit of an oversight. On the plus side, most types of dynamic headphones can be accommodated using the 6.35mm standard socket, 4-pin balanced and 2.5mm balanced sockets on the front panel. Around the back are balanced XLR outputs for connecting to active speakers and the like, plus unbalanced RCA phono socket outputs. A coaxial S/PDIF digital output is also provided.

On the underside of the unit, there are four switches to set the gain of the left and right balanced current mode amplifiers with “standard” and “low” settings. This allows the output level to be matched to the rest of your system, and is particularly useful when operating as a DAC/preamp.

Under the hood, the CMA400i makes use of four groups of Class A Current Mode amplifiers to provide fully balanced amplification throughout. The amplifiers all use discrete components to give the best possible sound. The on-board DAC is AKM’s AK4490 chip, which processes DSD signals without requiring any conversion to PCM. It supports 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD native up to DSD256 via the USB input. The S/PDIF in and output and Toslink in support up to 24-bit/192kHz PCM.

It can be positioned horizontally, or if you are short of space, stood up vertically.

Sound Quality

Questyle’s all-original current mode headphone amplifier, the CMA800, took it’s name from the reputable Sennheiser HD800 as it was the headphone of choice at the time for Questyle’s chief designer and CEO, Jason Wang. He originally designed the amplifier as he felt that there wasn’t anything available on the market to bring the best out of this headphone, so it’s fitting to test the CMA400i with the current top-of-the-range Sennheiser dynamic offering, the HD800S(HFC411). Connecting the Sennheiser to the CMA400i, I also cue up some digital music fed from the optical output of my Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6 V2 network player (HFC393).

Starting off with a 24/96 FLAC of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, I am treated to a deep and moving performance of the contemplative opening. This leads into the sprightly and energetic sections that precede the exciting middle where I am propelled forcefully through the music. The piece concludes with a commanding melody. This is a complex piece of music that was written to reflect youthful aspiration in the American heartland, and is brilliantly conveyed. I am blown away by the depth and masterful handling. All too often, combined DACs and headphone amplifiers seem to focus on the DAC function, with the headphone amp added almost as an afterthought. This is certainly not the case here-it delivers a refined performance with a well-controlled bass, coupled by a smooth and extended top end.

For a change of mood, I stream a 16/44 WAV of the Oscar Peterson Trio playing You Look Good To Me. The instruments are well defined with lots of space around them. I have a real sense of a three-dimensional performance with the drums on the left located just behind the piano, which occupies the entre-stage position. The double bass on the right is tuneful and clear, while the tempo and timing is glorious.

A 24/96 WAV file of Sara K singing A Whiter Shade Of Pale takes this sense of realism to new heights. The mournful vocals really draw me into the music, while the accompanying accordion brings an element of sadness to this contemplative rendition before the music spices up.
For a performance with a bit more energy, I turn to some Gluck Italian Arias by the exceedingly talented Cecilia Bartoli and recorded at 16/44 CD quality. I’m treated to some extremely exciting vocal excursions and, as before, have a real sense of space around the instruments with plenty of width and depth. Cecilia is definitely in front of the orchestra, which is well positioned and spread out behind her-no mean achievement for listening via headphone.

Modern binaural, or “dummy head” recordings work rather well with a conventional loudspeaker setup, but they are designed specifically for headphone listening as they are made with two special microphones embedded within a dummy head to simulate the headphone listening environment. With a recent recording of Rimsky Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, the opening section simply explodes between my ears in a very pleasant way. I have no sense that the full force of the music is in any way hampered or restricted by the CMA400i. It takes the dynamics of this recoding in its stride and the soundstage of the 24/192 WAV file is staggering. I find myself completely immersed in the exuberant playing and quickly forget that I am listening via headphone.

To test the CMA400i using my PC as the source, I install the driver that can be downloaded from the Questyle website, and connect my PC to the amplifier via a USB cable. Questyle recommends the use of the JRiver Media Centre 20 and includes a link to the JRiver website where you can downloaded a free 30-day trial of the software. There are also detailed instructions on setting up the freeware foobar2000 software, which is used for the remainder of the testing.

A CD-quality WAV file of Verano Porteno from Piazzolla’s The Four Seasons Of Buenos Aires, played by the Zemtsov Viola Quartet, shows off just how well the DAC keeps the timing, especially during the opening tango. The full richness of the violas, together with the atmospherics of this lovely recording, is beautifully conveyed.

Well-Controlled bass is couple with a smooth and extended top end.

How It Compares
The CMA400i compares well sonically with the Sennheiser HDV820 (HFC430) as they both offer a built-in DAC. However, it is rather unfair as the Sennheiser costs over twice as much. The HDV820 has an analogue input, but unlike the CMA400i there is no unbalanced output. Rupert Neve Designs RNHP Precision headphone amp (HFC 424) costs just over half as much as the CMA400i and compares well sonically. It lacks digital functionality, support for balanced headphones and its looks are something of an acquire taste.

The CMA400i delivers superb sound and competes with headphone amps well above its price point. The lack of analogue input is a let down, but it’s ability to operate as a standalone DAC/preamp is a real plus.

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